|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 February 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Innocent victims of a dirty war
Nadim Muhsen was not yet born when the Gulf War raged not far from his family home in the southern Iraqi town of Safwan, close to the Kuwaiti border. Yet from the moment of his birth Nadim, now six, has paid the price for the confrontation. It has proved a high price indeed.
When Nadim's father carries the shy little boy out of the hut, visitors can only feel overwhelmed with pity. His face, eaten up by the skin cancer which struck when he was nine months old, bears little resemblance to the face that could and should have been. Hidden under his shirt, the disease crawls over his chest. His father, Muhsen, shows us the "medicine" Nadim has been prescribed -- two tubes of sun tan lotion.
Nadim is a possible late victim of the fallout from chemicals or ammunition used during the Gulf War.
Iraqi doctors believe the cause of Nadim's disease and others like it was a type of ammunition used by the allies. American and British troops used depleted uranium (DU) ammunition to hit Iraqi armoured cars and tanks. Estimates of how much DU -- a hard, dense material which penetrates armour thanks to the immense heat it emits before disintegrating -- was used during operation Desert Storm vary from 300 to 800 tons.
What is certain is that cases like this are not unfamiliar in the city of Basra and the surrounding area. Local paediatrician Jenan Ghalib has compiled statistics, backed by photographs, of many cases of children born suffering from multi-deformations. Ghalib says the number of such cases, almost unknown before the war, is increasing year by year.
According to Ghalib's evidence, 176 such cases were recorded in 1999 in Basra alone. Last year, this number had risen to 220 out of a little more than 12,000 recorded births, a rate of nearly 2 per cent. In other parts of the world such cases appear about once in 10,000 births.
No wonder, then, that many pregnant women in Basra are stricken by the fear of giving birth to a deformed baby. "Some come to the hospital crying before and during labour, praying their baby will be all right," Dr Ghalib says.
The chromosome imbalance causing the birth defects is not the only alleged effect of DU. Ghalib says cancer rates of children in Basra have tripled since the Gulf War.
Children are frequently found to have forms of cancer unknown in the area before the war, such as bone cancer in small children and breast cancer in 12-year-olds. "During my entire study I have not seen one of those cases; now I am confronted by them on a daily basis," Dr Majed Zabun, assistant paediatrician in Basra's children hospital, says.
Members of western relief organisations in Baghdad believe DU is to blame. "There is a clear correlation with the Gulf War and the increasing number of cancer and deformations. What remains is to figure out the precise reason," a relief source said.
But for Dr Ghalib and her colleagues the cases seems to be clear-cut. They claim the battlefields in southern Iraq are contaminated with radioactivity from DU ammunition. The symptoms of the cases they experience in their hospital are similar to those of patients known to have been exposed to radioactivity.
The US Defence Department, however, argues that the radiation from DU ammunition is lower than natural radiation levels found in the ground and atmosphere. They claim there is no connection between DU, the cases of cancer in Iraq and the so-called Gulf War syndrome common among Gulf War veterans.
According to Iraqi DU specialist Dr Sami Araj, radiation from DU dust is not dangerous if exposure is from the outside. "You can take a shower and wash it off," he explains.
Dr Araj says the problem begins when the dust is inhaled or invades the body through the food chain. There the DU dust is not only a highly toxic heavy metal, but its low-grade radiation accumulates in the liver and kidneys, posing a serious health threat over the years.
Dr Ghalib believes that this is why the cancer rate in Basra did not begin to jump until five years after the war was over. Some cases of cancer were first found among returning soldiers and those living right in the battle zone. The desert wind, however, scattered the dust, and now the problem is endemic in the entire Basra region, where tomatoes grow alongside grazing sheep on the former battlefields.
Until now no comprehensive study has been made in Iraq on the possible connection between DU and the increase in disease. Iraq has no sophisticated laboratory capacities to undertake such a study. Nor have World Health Organisation experts taken over this duty.
It is always possible that there is more than one reason for the wave of cancer and birth defects. During the Gulf War, the inhabitants of southern Iraq were exposed to a cocktail of damaging substances. As well as DU and the smoke of burning Kuwaiti oil fields, there is a possibility that the Gulf War allies bombarded Iraqi positions where chemical weapons were stored. Three years after the war, Theodore Prociv, a Pentagon official responsible for chemical and biological warfare, testified that during the 42 days of the war 14,000 chemical alarms were triggered, and in June 1996 the Pentagon mentioned for the first time the possibility that an Iraqi unit storing nerve gas was bombed.
It is possible, then, that the people of southern Iraq are victims of a combination of harmful substances. As Dr Ernest Sternglass, a radioactivity expert from the University of Pittsburgh, points out: "Chemical substances are the silent helpers of radioactivity."
Dr Ghalib hopes the current international debate on DU, which has surfaced since the war in Kosovo, will bring world attention to the plight of the people of southern Iraq. For Iraqi DU specialist Araj, however, it is precisely this debate that makes him bitter.
"For ten years we talked about the problem with DU, and now that a handful of Italian soldiers have died of cancer after coming back from Kosovo, where DU was also used, the whole world shouts and screams."
Indeed, it is rather difficult to pin down the effects of DU in the midst of Iraqi propaganda and a lack of real data. But one thing is certain: the problems of diseases and general health in southern Iraq are not an invention of Saddam Hussein's propaganda machine.
Not far away from the former battlefield of Safwan, Raiab Abdallah is guarding his two dozen sheep. The 65-year-old farmer is certainly not on the list of official interviewees prepared by the Iraqi Ministry of Information. Nevertheless, the shadow of the ministry accompanying every journalist during their every step in southern Iraq does not balk at our request to stop the car and talk to him.
Abdallah has no clue about cancer statistics, nor does he know what to do with the word "uranium". But he can tell tales of strange diseases that appeared after the Gulf War. One of his sheep was born with three legs, others were born blind, and of the 15 families living in the area, six members had lately died of cancer. "I am sure this has something to do with the war," the old farmer said.
While Raiab Abdallah speaks, a steady wind is blowing over the flat and dreary landscape. Upwind, one can just make out on the horizon a group of burned-out Iraqi tanks.
Recommend this page
© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time